Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home).

Two of the turtles at the aquarium are green turtles, a large one and a small one. The sign said: 'The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup...' I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that's a lot of soup walking about.
—William G. in Turtle Diary (p. 12)

1977 Picador edition

Turtle Diary (1975)

A Novel by Russell Hoban

Note: Turtle Diary was made into an excellent film starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. You can read about it on the Turtle Diary film page.



Turtle Diary is available in the US as part of the Russell Hoban Omnibus, and Bloomsbury's 2001 trade paperback edition is available in the UK (and to the rest of the world via the Amazon UK Web site). Some used copies are generally available on the Bibliofind site.


I think I become more impressed with Turtle Diary each time I read it. Many writers have been accused of having insight into the human condition; but it's a precious few who have committed such a flagrant display of it as Mr. Hoban has in this elegant, witty and compassionate treatise on loneliness, freedom and what it means to be alive. It's at once his most accessible book, and perhaps his most gracefully executed.

William G. works in a bookstore; Neaera H. is an author of children's books. Two lonely, embittered people who don't know each other, but whose thoughts are gradually verging toward similar territory. William G. is forty-five, lives alone in an apartment, haunted by thoughts of the family he's been separated from by divorce, especially the daughters he no longer sees. In a particularly poignant moment early on he observes, "There must be a lot of people in the world being wondered about by people who don't see them anymore."

Turtle Diary movie edition Neaera is forty-three, and unmarried; thinks of herself as the sort of spinster woman who has "resisted vegetarianism" and doesn't keep cats. She's tired of writing books about cuddly animals, and guardedly contemplates her married friends who "wear Laura Ashley dresses, and in their houses are grainy photographs of them barefoot on continental beaches with their naked children." She's resigned to her aloneness, and at one point observes, "My despair has long since been ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life."

Thoreau might have been thinking about these two when he made his famous observation that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Separately, they regard their unhappy existences with a wry, bittersweet irony that makes their reflections sometimes charmingly droll, other times quietly heartbreaking.

There's no particular reason why their lives should intersect, except that they share a fascination: turtles, particularly three green sea turtles in the Aquarium of the London Zoo. Each begins making repeated visits to the zoo to gaze at the turtles swimming gracefully in their tank, and ponder the irony of creatures capable of making a migratory journey of thousands of miles--who "have it in them to find something"--being prevented from doing so. And separately, they make the same inquiries to the Head Keeper, who "seems a right sort of man": suppose someone wanted to kidnap the turtles and set them free, how might they go about it?

Soon, William and Neaera's lives begin to intersect in earnest, as the keeper proves surprisingly receptive to their inquiries. Though he's been rebuffed by the higher-ups at the zoo, he feels that after twenty or thirty years in captivity, the turtles deserve their freedom. With his cooperation, soon William and Neaera are bundling the turtles in a van and setting off for the coast.

At this point, the predictable thing would be for the story to veer into romantic territory as the two find the solution to their mutual loneliness in each other; the reader is all but expecting it. But Mr. Hoban doesn't do the predictable thing; he's more honest and less sentimental than that. Exactly how things do unfold must be left to the reader to discover, but it's not destroying any significant suspense to say that ultimately, William and Neaera are indeed altered by the mission they embark on, and the synchronicitous intersection of their lives. And that Mr. Hoban winds up the story with his usual sure touch and moving insight.



1991 Picador edition "A story about the recovery of life...Like other cult writers--Salinger for instance, or Vonnegut--Hoban writes about ordinary people making life-affirming gestures in a world that threatens to dissolve in madness."

"Crackles with witty detail, mordant intelligence and self-deprecating irony."

"This wonderful, life-saving fantasy will place Russell Hoban where he has got to be--among the greatest, timeless novelists."
--The (London) Times

"Russell Hoban is our ur-novelist, a maverick voice that is like no other. He can take themes that seem too devastating for contemplation and turn them into allegories in which wry, sad humour is married to quite extraordinary powers of imagery and linguistic fertility that makes each book a linguistic departure." --Sunday Telegraph

"The marvellous energy of Mr. Hoban's writing, simultaneously dry and passionate, justifies everything he does."
--Times Educational Supplement "Russell Hoban is an original, imaginative and inventive. Though some of his work has been compared with that of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, he is his own man, working his own vein of magical fantasy."
--The (London) Times



Salon Editor Laura Miller has a lovely piece on Turtle Diary as a lost classic in the Village Voice Summer '98 Literary Supplement.


My despair has long since been ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life. -- Neaera H. (p. 80)

Sometimes I think that this whole thing, this whole business of a world that keeps waking itself up and bothering to go on every day, is necessary only as a manifestation of the intolerable. The intolerable is like H.G. Wells's invisible man, it has to put on clothes in order to be seen. So it dresses itself up in a world. Possibly it looks in a mirror but my imagination doesn't go that far. --William G. (p. 77)

I had a salad. If I were to say that today's tomatoes were an index of the decline of Western man I should be thought a crank but nations do not, I think, ascend on such tomatoes. -- Neaera H. (p. 68)

It was the sort of situation that would be ever so charming and warmly human in a film with Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith but that sort of film is only charming because they leave out so many details, and real life is all the details they leave out.--William G. (p. 57)

It's curious how the mind works. I see the world through turtle-coloured glasses now. Because of the turtles I expect a stranger to speak significantly, am prepared for signs and wonders, my terrors freshen, I feel a gathering-up in me as if I'm going to die soon, I await a Day of Judgment. Whose judgment? Mine, less merciful than God's. It is not always a comfort to find a like-minded person, another fraction of being who shares one's incompleteness. The bookshop man has many thoughts and feelings that I have, I sense that. -- Neaera H. (p. 59)

A turtle doesn't have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on. Maybe that's why man kills everything: envy.--William G. (p. 62)

I was on South Bank one day by the Royal Festival Hall. It was a sunny day with a bright blue sky. I was looking up at a train crossing the Hungerford Bridge. Through the train I could see the sky successively framed by each window as the carriage passed. Each window moving quickly forward and away held briefly a rectangle of blue. The windows passing, the blue remained.-- Neaera H. (p. 53)

Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home page).

Russell Hoban's other novels and collections: